National News

Custody battle in Vienna generating international uproar

‍‍2015-01-27 09:33:34 - כח כסלו תשעה ipotts

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VIENNA — In an apartment in the Austrian capital, Beth Alexander is deleting hundreds of photos of her 5-year-old twin boys from Facebook.

In one picture, Benjamin and Samuel are laughing as they hold a toy. In another they are waiting to be served lunch in their native Vienna.

The ordinary snapshots are the kind uploaded by countless mothers all over the world. Yet Alexander, a British-born modern Orthodox mother in her 30s, is barred from displaying them by order of an Austrian court, which in November ruled in favor of her ex-husband’s motion claiming the photos violated the twins’ privacy.

“Removing these pictures is painful to me,” Alexander said this month in an interview via Skype. “They allow my family back in Britain to sort of keep in touch with the boys and they show that despite all that has been said about me, I’m a good mother and the children are happy when they are with me.”

The injunction is the latest in a series of legal setbacks that have left Alexander with restricted access to her boys and declared barely fit to be a mother — rulings that have led to mounting international criticism and claims of a colossal miscarriage of justice.

Leaders of the British and Austrian Jewish communities have spoken out about what they consider to be a highly unusual case that has unfairly limited Alexander’s maternal rights. Her case even made it to the floor of the British Parliament, where lawmakers last year described it as a Kafkaesque situation that has wrongly maligned Alexander as mentally ill and an unfit mother.

“I have no reason to assume that Alexander is in any way incapable of being a mother,” said Schlomo Hofmeister, a prominent Viennese rabbi who knows the Schlesinger case well. Hofmeister said it was tragic that the children were deprived of equal access to their mother and called on both parents to “find a time-sharing arrangement in the interest of these children, who are suffering.”

Alexander, who was known in the media by her married name, Beth Schlesinger, until she changed it recently, was separated from her husband, Michael Schlesinger, in 2009 after three years of marriage. The couple formally divorced last year.

In 2011, a court-commissioned psychologist reported that Alexander had “reduced parenting abilities” and was oblivious to her children’s “significant developmental delay.” Though the report by psychologist Ulrike Willinger also acknowledged Alexander’s “close, loving bond” with her children, it concluded that Schlesinger should receive custody.

An Austrian court agreed, awarding Schlesinger full custody and restricting Alexander’s visitation rights to a few hours every week. In 2011, four policemen removed the children from her care as Alexander was feeding them supper. It would be eight weeks until she saw the children again.

Though the Willinger report’s findings were disputed in two subsequent psychological evaluations, the court refused to reconsider its ruling. Last year, Austria’s Supreme Court rejected Alexander’s appeal without explanation.

Alexander, who has a master’s degree from Cambridge University and works in Vienna as a university lecturer and an English teacher, says her ability to fight for her rights in Austria is severely limited because she is a foreigner without local connections and at first was not fluent in German. But while she has been unsuccessful in the courts, her lobbying efforts are becoming increasingly successful in swaying public opinion in her favor.

Her case was the subject of a debate in Britain’s House of Commons last year, during which lawmaker Graham Stringer made the Kafkaesque reference and cited concerns that Schlesinger may be abusing his family’s alleged ties to justice officials.
“One has to suspect that undue influence and conspiracy were taking place,” Stringer said.

Ivan Lewis, another British lawmaker, called the Austrian justice system’s handling of the case “one of the worst miscarriages of justice,” adding that Alexander “was falsely and cruelly labeled mentally ill and an unfit mother, labels both disproved by independent professionals.”

British Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis and Jonathan Arkush, the vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, have also both spoken out on Alexander’s behalf.
Michael Schlesinger did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this article. The couple are no longer in contact, the result of a spiteful breakup during which Schlesinger was removed from the couple’s home on police orders after he sought, unsuccessfully, to have his wife committed to a mental institute.

As a result of the legal battle, Alexander said she cannot meet with journalists at her home lest her ex-husband use such meetings for further litigation.

As she continues to fight in court and lobby for more time with her twins, Alexander uses the time she has with them to compensate for her absence from their daily lives with activities like baking, going to the park, reading stories, and arts and crafts.

“I have to make up in one day what other mothers may do with their children in a week,” Alexander said.

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‘The Return’ takes new look at Polish Jewish revival

‍‍2015-01-26 09:43:38 - כח כסלו תשעה ipotts

Catholic-born Katka is one of four young women featured in the documentary "The Return." (Courtesy of Longnook Pictures)

Catholic-born Katka is one of four young women featured in the documentary “The Return.” (Courtesy of Longnook Pictures)

LOS ANGELES — On the crumbling wall of a former Polish synagogue, adjacent to a one-time Jewish ritual bath converted into a car wash, a graffiti artist has painted “Jews, We Miss You” in Polish and German.

The message, scrawled on the wall in the Polish town of Dabrowno, is an apt message in contemporary Poland, which has seen a surprising revival of Jewish life in a land that nearly saw its Jewish community eradicated, first by the Holocaust and then under decades of communist rule.

The story of that revival is the subject of the new documentary “The Return.” Adam Zucker, a 57-year-old New Yorker, does triple duty as the film’s director, producer and writer. He tells his tale through the eyes of four women.

Zucker estimates that there are now 20,000 people in Poland who formally identify as members of the Jewish community — a number that doesn’t include those who have some Jewish ancestry, often recently discovered, or the legions of non-Jews who have become enamored of Jewish culture.

“Poland was the cradle of Ashkenazi Jewry, where Hasidism started and Yiddish developed,” writer Konstanty Gebert declares in the film, adding defiantly, “And this is where it did not end.”

The continuation of Polish Jewish life rests in large part on the profound interest in all things Jewish among Polish Catholics, many of whom participate in the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow. At the city’s Jewish community center, they play in klezmer bands, dance while juggling bottles on their heads, act in Jewish dramas and affirm that having a Jewish friend is cool.

Adam Zucker is the writer, producer and director of the new documentary "The Return." (Courtesy of Longnook Pictures)

Adam Zucker is the writer, producer and director of the new documentary “The Return.” (Courtesy of Longnook Pictures)

There are different explanations for this unlikely philo-Semitism, including a general nostalgia for prewar Polish life. But Zucker suggests that after the tribulations of decades of communist rule, the citizenry welcomes the color and enthusiasm of Jewish life.

Zucker discovered the phenomenon of Polish non-Jews spearheading a revival of Jewish culture in a 2008 New York Times article, which intrigued him enough to chance an exploratory trip to Poland.

While the quality of performances at Jewish cultural festivals in Warsaw and Krakow exceeded his expectations, what really fascinated him were the stories of young Jews “trying to define their identities and discover who they were, without access to their past heritage in the place which was once the most Jewish in the world,” he said.

Before embarking on the film, Zucker had no clear idea how many characters to feature or that his subjects would all wind up being women. Once introduced to the country’s Jewish communities, he encountered some interesting and involved men, but the women really stood out.
“I though that since Judaism, like most institutions, tends to be a bit patriarchal, focusing on women would be a somewhat different way into the story which I found appealing,” Zucker said. “Each of the women wrestled with her Jewish and female identity.”

Zucker grew up in New York City, the great-grandson of Jews from Poland, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia. He has been making movies all his life, most recently the 2007 film “Greensboro: Closer to the Truth,” which documents the first Truth and Reconciliation commission formed to re-examine the 1979 Greensboro Massacre in North Carolina.

But he pays the rent as a film editor, including work on such award-winning documentaries as “Homestead Steel Strike,” “Broadway: The American Musical,” “Richard Wright: Black Boy” and “The West.”

Between editing stints, his filming of “The Return” stretched over five years, shooting in five cities and on three continents, covering two weddings, the arrival of two babies and one conversion ritual.

Zucker raised one-third of the film’s $150,000 budget through a campaign on the website Kickstarter, with the National Center for Jewish Film as the fiscal sponsor.

Many Diaspora Jews moving to Israel find life there too intense and confrontational for their tastes. But Kasia and Maria are relieved to be in a country where they no longer have to wrestle with their Jewish identities.

Among the four women featured in the film is Tusia, whose Polish grandmother denied all her life that she was Jewish before finally acknowledging her roots on her deathbed. Tusia was raised in New York but returned to Warsaw to be part of the revival and wants to restore Dabrowno’s former Jewish center.

The other characters include Katka, a Catholic-born redhead who left her native Prague to study in Warsaw and, somewhat to her own amazement, fell in love with a young Orthodox Jewish man and converted.

“It is a big responsibility to be Jewish,” Katka said.

Kasia is an outspoken feminist and doctoral candidate in women’s studies. She grew up Catholic and didn’t discover until her teens that she was half Jewish. Now she is determined to be a secular Jew but yearns for Jewish community life.

And finally there’s Maria, a single mother and the only one of the women who grew up knowing she was Jewish, though it didn’t much matter to her. She also marries an Orthodox Jew and learns to run a kosher home.

Both Kasia and Maria follow their husbands as they move to Israel — not necessarily to settle permanently, but to try out life in a different place, a fairly common practice among mobile young Europeans.

Many Diaspora Jews moving to Israel find life there too intense and confrontational for their tastes. But Kasia and Maria are relieved to be in a country where they no longer have to wrestle with their Jewish identities.

“In Israel, I stopped thinking about being Jewish,” Kasia said. “It’s a holiday from my Jewishness.”

Tusia, who splits her time between Warsaw and New York, acknowledges similar emotions.

“When I’m in Brooklyn, I’m a Pole living in the United States and feel hardly Jewish at all,” she said. But in Warsaw or Krakow, she feels a deep responsibility to “save the crumbling remnants of Jewish history.”

In the coming months, “The Return” will screen at Jewish film festivals in New York, Atlanta and Washington, with additional venues to be announced.

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Eyes on Adelson

‍‍2015-01-23 09:05:55 - כח כסלו תשעה lbridwell

012315_republicansEven with the contours of the 2016 Republican presidential primary race finally taking shape, Jewish donors largely remain uncommitted on the two latest contenders — former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the failed 2012 GOP presidential nominee, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush both signaled they were running last week — and are instead waiting to see who will win the support of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson.

Adelson, the most influential member of the 45-member board of the Republican Jewish Coalition, has played a dual role as something of a kin maker and spoiler in previous elections. In 2012, he bankrolled former House Speaker Newt Gingrich to the tune of $15 million before moving on to Romney when Gingrich dropped out of the race. Although at the time, Romney was the favorite among the majority of Republican donors, Adelson’s support for Gingrich was influential among other Jewish donors, even if they weren’t ready to financially support someone deemed as a longshot.

Now, even with Romney, Bush and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie emerging as the likely frontrunners, RJC members say none of these likely candidates have yet to clinch Adelson’s coveted backing.

Adelson’s spokesman, Ron Reese, said the businessman was still looking into all the candidates and that it was too early to tell whom he would
support. Reese declined to speculate who Adelson is leaning toward.

But despite the importance of Adelson’s endorsement, some well-heeled donors may base their support of candidates on close personal ties.

“You’ve got the folks that again have long-term relationships that need to maintain them, but for the most part, I think everyone is still keeping their powder dry,” said Texas businessman and RJC board member Fred Zeideman. Other than maybe those “who have had long-term personal relationships that superseded electability, but in Texas they say ‘you’ve got to dance with the one that brung ya.’”

With so many candidates exploring the possibility of a presidential bid, some donors are looking forward to the coming months when they expect the candidates to lobby them with their campaign ideas. Electability appears to be the biggest concern.

“I don’t think that the people I know want to be Don Quixote anymore,” said Gary Erlbaum, president of the Philadelphia-based Greentree Properties Corporation and a self-described independent who has recently backed Republican candidates. “I think that it would be wonderful to be like the far right and want to be right rather than president, but I think that at this point in time — after what the Jews have endured and the State of Israel has endured under Obama —Republicans are definitely looking for ‘hope and change.’”

His comments were echoed by an RJC staffer who asked not to be named on the record. The staffer confirmed that most of the group’s members have not yet committed to a candidate and that perceived electability will likely be the determining factor among donors.

“I don’t think we have seen any coalescing behind one candidate or another,” explained the staffer. “I think there is strong support for a multitude of candidates: [Texas Sen. Ted] Cruz, Christie, Bush and now we can add Romney to that list. What people want to see this time around is a winner.

“Hillary Clinton, the almost sure Democratic nominee, was the vehicle for Obama’s foreign policy that has put significant daylight between the United States and Israel, something that is anathema to many donors,” the staffer continued. “Whoever proves that they can beat Hillary Clinton, win and repair our relationship with Israel I think will get the majority of Jewish support.”

The sense that the relationship between Israel and the United States has been ruined by President Barack Obama’s administration is the most common sentiment among donors interviewed recently, with all speculating that their counterparts feel the same. That, and concern over what they believe to be the administration’s mishandling of nuclear negotiations with the Iranian regime, appear to be the driving force determining Jewish Republican support.

Longtime RJC board member and Florida-based attorney Joel Hoppenstein said that Obama’s response to the recent terrorist attacks in Paris — failing to attend a rally with other world leaders — plainly shows the difference between the Obama administration and the candidate he believes the GOP needs to put forward.

“My Republican president shouldn’t be having to weigh whether he’s going to watch the football playoffs or go to Paris. I mean it’s a no brainer. That’s the most recent litmus test if you will,” Hoppenstein said. “That shouldn’t be something that you have to think about. It should just come instinctively. That’s the kind of candidate I’m looking for, who knows instinctively to do the right thing vis-a-vis Israel or Jewish issues on a global scale.”

Unlike most of the others, Hoppenstein made no secret that he felt Bush was the prospective candidate that he supports.

“Having lived in Florida for about 15 years, I’ve gotten to observe Jeb Bush at pretty close quarters, when he was governor and in private as a private citizen,” said Hoppenstein. “And he has an instinctive feel for Jewish issues. He has a lot of Jewish friends. He’s very comfortable around Jewish people on a personal level. I think through that, he’s gotten a feel for Jewish issues.

“He was very involved in establishing ties between Israel and the state of Florida,” he added.

Noticeably, few of the big donors appear to be considering Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, despite Paul’s recent feverish attempt at driving the pro-Israel agenda in Congress with his bill to defund the Palestinian Authority for joining the International Criminal Court, his courting of RJC leaders and attendance at their events.

According to Erlbaum, few Jewish Republicans feel they’re ready to put their trust in Paul, who until recently has espoused a strict isolationist
ideology similar to his father, former Texas Rep. Ron Paul.

“Rand Paul has been backtracking for months now in expectation of a possible run for president to make himself acceptable to the Republican Party establishment on foreign policy,” said political analyst Bill Schneider. “He has been known for some time, like his father, as an isolationist. Today he claims he’s not an isolationist, and he’s been particularly outspoken in supporting Israel in ways that he devises, some of which are not acceptable to Israel, but he’s still critical of military intervention just about everywhere: in Syria, Ukraine.

“Nobody likes a shape shifter,” continued Schneider. “If he looks like a likely Republican nominee, frankly, I think he’d split the Republican Party wide open.”

Hoppenstein questioned Paul’s foreign policy evolution.

“I think Rand Paul is trying to moderate, but I don’t think this is the time for Jews to be experimenting,” said Hoppenstein. “I think we need someone who’s completely solid.”

dshapiro@washingtonjewishweek.com

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Inauguration Celebration

‍‍2015-01-22 20:14:44 - כח כסלו תשעה mshapiro

Larry Hogan inaugurationThe hundreds of Marylanders who braved cold temperatures and heavy snow on Wednesday to witness the swearing-in of the second Republican governor in more than four decades were treated to a snapshot of the new governor’s plan for the next four years.

“Today is the beginning of a new spirit of bipartisan cooperation in Annapolis,” declared Gov. Larry Hogan from the steps of the statehouse after being sworn in as Maryland’s 62nd governor. The ceremony was attended by Hogan’s father, former congressman Lawrence Hogan; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who campaigned heavily for Hogan ahead of the November election; outgoing Democratic Gov. Martin O’Malley; former Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich; Attorney General Brian Frosh and delegates and state senators from both parties, along with numerous family members, friends and citizens.

Hogan told attendees that he and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford’s administration will focus on four key objectives in his tenure. First, he will set a standard of fiscal responsibility in all aspects of governing. Second, he said, he will utilize the resources available in the state Maryland, such as the Chesapeake Bay and the wealth of top-notch colleges and universities, to spur economic growth in the state. Third, he promised to work to ensure that the state government is maximally responsive to and representative of the citizens of Maryland. And fourth, he said, he will restore fairness and balance for taxpayers.

“This is our chance to build a state that works for the people, and not the other way around” he told an energetic crowd as the snow began to collect.

Hogan’s speech centered on creating an environment of bipartisanship in Annapolis, where he will have to work with the heavily Democratic state legislature. He assured the crowd that the next four years would be marked by unprecedented cooperation rather than gridlock and stalemate. With his first budget due Friday, Marylanders will soon find out what kind of atmosphere the next four years will carry.

“In the end,” he said, “it isn’t about politics, it’s about citizenship.”

Inauguration day began at 8 a.m. for the new Hogan administration with an interfaith service held at St. Mary’s Church in Annapolis and ended with a gala at the Baltimore Convention Center. At the gala, a visibly tired Rutherford and Hogan addressed the crowd of party-goers, thanking them for their support.

When Hogan launched his campaign almost a year ago, said Alfred Redmer Jr., Hogan’s new insurance commissioner who emceed the team’s election night party and introduced the governor and lieutenant governor at the gala, the pundits said “Larry who?” By the springtime, he said to a cheering crowd, “you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing his bus.”

For Marylanders Dave and Mary Manley, who enjoyed the food and cocktails at the packed gala, the party was a long time coming.

“We’ve only ever been on the other side of [elections],” said Dave Manley. He and his wife were not living in Maryland during Ehrlich’s time in office and jumped at the opportunity to attend Hogan’s Inauguration gala to celebrate the rare Republican victory. The pair was looking forward to the lower taxes and more business-friendly climate the Hogan campaign championed during the election.

“It’s always good to get some change in [the governor’s seat],” said Dave.

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Ohio Rabbi Apprehended in N.Y. for Alleged Sex Crime in Maryland

‍‍2015-01-22 09:10:58 - כח כסלו תשעה lbridwell

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Rabbi Frederick “Ephraim” Karp (Photo: Cleveland Jewish News)

Rabbi Ephraim Karp, director of spiritual living at Menorah Park Center for Senior Living in Beachwood, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland, was arrested in New York Jan. 15 on an active felony warrant from Maryland.

According to the Queens, N.Y., district attorney’s office, Karp has been charged by the state of Maryland with perverted practice, sex offense, sex abuse of a minor and sex abuse. He is listed in court records as Frederick M. Karp and a release from the Baltimore County Police Department linked the charges to the alleged abuse of a juvenile female over a period of time.

Karp, 50, was arrested at 9:25 p.m. Jan. 15 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York as “a fugitive from justice” on the warrant issued by the District Court of Maryland, Baltimore County, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department.

He was arraigned Jan. 16 in Queens Criminal Court and has a hearing set for Jan. 22 in the same court. As of Jan. 21, he was in custody at the Anna M. Kross Correctional Facility in East Elmhurst, N.Y., according to the New York Department of Correction website. No public records existed for the case in Baltimore County courts.

Karp will likely be extradited to Maryland after his Jan. 22 court appearance because he faces charges there, said Ikimulisa Livingston, spokesperson for the Queens district attorney’s office. She said the crimes he is charged with probably occurred in Maryland.

Karp is president of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains, formerly known as the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, and was en route to the annual NAJC conference in Jerusalem at the time of his arrest, a spokesperson for Menorah Park said. The conference is set for Jan. 26 to Jan. 29.

In June 2013, the organization’s national board, which includes Karp, was at the Pearlstone Center in Reisterstown for a conference.

In a statement, however, Baltimore County Police said there was no evidence that any incidents of abuse occurred at any local Jewish facilities.

Steven R. Raichilson, executive director at Menorah Park, issued this statement Jan. 21:

“(Jan. 20), we learned that Rabbi Ephraim Karp has been charged in Baltimore County, Md., with a series of offenses accusing him of sex abuse that allegedly took place in Maryland. We do not have further details regarding the charges, but we continue to be assured by local authorities that there is no connection between these charges and Rabbi Karp’s work for Menorah Park.

“We were tremendously saddened by this development. Rabbi Karp joined us seven years ago with solid recommendations,” he continued. “We conducted a thorough background check and no issues or concerns surfaced during that process.”

Beachwood Police Chief Keith Winebrenner confirmed that police from Baltimore County came to Beachwood on Jan. 15 looking for Karp, but said he could not provide any more details.

“I know he was arrested in New York, but I don’t know what he was arrested for or if he has been charged with anything,” Winebrenner said. “It’s still under investigation.”

Karp, of Beachwood, came to Menorah Park in 2008. He is one of two full-time Orthodox rabbis in the nursing home’s spiritual living department.

Before coming to Menorah Park, he was community chaplain for seven years for the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County in New Jersey, where he founded its joint chaplaincy program.

Karp, who grew up on Long Island, N.Y., was ordained at the Ayshel Avraham Rabbinical Seminary in Spring Valley, N.Y., in 1998. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and a Master of Social Work in international and community development at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J.

Ed Wittenberg writes for the Cleveland Jewish News.

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